06 June 2009

Tending the Natural: Humanist Spirituality II

"Remember that philosophy requires of you only that which your nature recquires." - Marcus Aurelius

"We're different, and yet all the same -- we all want to be happy." - Anne Frank

"I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life." - the Dalai Lama

Almost two years ago, I posted an essay that I called "All and Enough: Humanist Spirituality". I took the title from the third Humanist Manifesto, which declares that the natural world is "all and enough". There, I tried to explore what spirituality meant to me. Beginning with my center of reason and empathy and a joy for living, I wrote that I thought spirituality consisted of enjoying life and living it well by cultivating our inner essence. This inner essence has been called a soul or a spirit, but if I did so it would only be as a metaphor. My perception of my own essence is wholly naturalistic: For me, "I" am made up of biological drives and the psychological drives that a lifetime of living have given me. I do not pretend to understand the "stuff" of consciousness, but on precedent I accept that it is probably completely natural or based on the natural.

It is on this foundation of naturalism that I build, and this is part of the reason I call myself a Humanist. My joy for living comes from accepting life on its own terms -- not on the terms of the supernatural. I enjoy life -- I revel in it. I cozy under trees, reading good books and letting the grass caress my fingers while I listen to the wind blow through the trees and the birds sing, and the sheer enjoyment of it all can stop my heart and bring tears to my eyes. I believe in just being happy, in "letting the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves."* This means for me living in accordance with nature: nature is both a beginning and a direction. My natural "center" is reason and empathy -- or more broadly, reason and emotion. I think these two attributes are the essence of human nature. We are intelligent creatures who can use reason to ponder philosophical questions and do things with purpose, and we are emotional creatures, evolved to live in social groups. We experience emotions while living life in our communities, and ideally we would use those emotions reasonable to create ways of living that make us happy (or at least help us survive). This is the beginning of law -- indeed, of most every aspect of civilization.

I labor to live according to my nature: I practice freethought or skepticism, and I try to connect to other people in whatever ways I can -- in spending time with friends, or reading literature and connecting to people who have been dead for centuries. "Cultivation" is a word I like to use in reference to spirituality: I see my life as a flower, a bird of paradise perhaps, that must have good soil and a reliable source of sunlight and water if it is to flourish. I need to stimulate my mind and emotions to grow -- and I need to live within their bounds. A flower only needs so much heat or water: too much will scorch it or drown it respectively. This is what I was trying to get at in my first essay: a life lived with empathy and reason, with sunlight and water, leads inevitably to human flourishing, to eudaimonia, to "invincible happiness".

However I might appreciate the need for living as naturally as possible, this approach has a problem: just because something is natural does not mean it is good for me. Anger is natural, for instance, but if I try to revel in anger, I will find myself visiting the pharmacist with a doctor's prescription for blood-pressure pills. My body's chemistry can be modified through my behavior so that it develops a dependency on alcohol: is it then "good" for me to drink all the more? How do I advocate living a natural life when doing what comes natural is not necessarily the best thing for me to do? For a year or so I've pondered this question every so often, but then just a couple of weeks ago the issue resolved itself with a single word: tending. If you have experience working in a garden, you will know that you have to fight weeds and pests to protect your plants. Weeds and destructive insects are a natural part of a garden, but they are not good for my purposes. I must tend the plants -- pull the weeds and get rid of the insects. Feeding and watering the plants is not enough -- I must continually destroy natural but destructive forces that would render my watering pointless.

So it is, I think, with human nature. I first became interested in the idea of humanist spirituality -- natural spirituality -- when I read Doug Muder's "Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment". One of the topics he discusses is mindfulness among the Stoics: being aware of our thoughts and feelings and asking ourselves if these thoughts and feelings are doing us any good. I found this practice to be intriguing, and I took it up. I have found this practice of mindfulness to be quite helpful -- I no longer fixate on the things I used to, and a year of practice has molded me to possess a near-constant sense of peace. I'm not just interested in peace, though -- I want something active, something forceful: I want to keep the fountain of joy inside me that Marcus Aurelius wrote of bubbling up. What I mean by "tending the natural" is mental practices that bring this bubbling about. I'm not the only person who has noted a need for tending, or disciplined attention: I note that many philosophical and religious teachers have advocated mental discipline of some form or another, the Stoics and Buddhists being the most devoted examples. A few modern teachers advocating mental discipline are the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (an Orthox rabbi, interestingly enough), and the late M. Scott Peck. The point of mental discipline is twofold: being mindful helps us "weed" ourselves, allowing us to grow, while active forms of discipline attempt to manipulate growth in the direction of our choice. Both forms have the end of human happiness in mind.

I have noted through the course of my reading a potential common theme in the philosophical, religious, spiritual, and psychological teachings of the past and present -- that of human happiness. Sometimes this is approached from the angle of the divine, using the idea of a deity as source. I used to use ideals for the same purpose, although I seem to be growing less concerned with reaching some outside ideal and more interested in what will develop from my life if I just enjoy it.

Recommended Reading:
  • The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell. A modern translation of Epictetus' Handbook and Discourses.
  • The Art of Happness and Ethnics for a New Millenium, Tenjin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama).
  • Doug Muder's "Humanist Spirituality"

* "Wild Geese", Mary Oliver

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